Dharma Parishad and the Questions of Religious Practice

In an earlier article, we had discussed in detail about how traditions and customs are very much accepted as sources of Dharma. Our scriptures declare that while the Vedas, Smritis, Itihasas and Puranas are the primary sources of our Dharmic law, the traditions or ‘Achara’ of a place or family can never be neglected. Given the diversity in approaches and goals of a Sanatani it is only natural that not every ritual or practice could have been encoded in the accepted scriptures.

Having conceded this primacy to customs and traditions, there arises the natural question of how to decide which practice or custom is indeed in line with the philosophy of Dharma and which isn’t. In other words, how does one decide a practice is a valid one and not just a superstition? In fact, this very question has been framed for review and consideration by the Supreme Court of India recently while referring the Sabarimala judgement to a larger 7-judge bench.

Thankfully, and not surprisingly, our rishis have anticipated such scenarios and have laid out a detailed procedure to handle the same. The unanimous opinion of our Smriti-karakas is that such questions involving Dharma can only be decided by a ‘Dharma Parishad’.

The Gautama Dharma Sutra says

अनाम्नाते दशावरैः शिष्टैः ऊहवद्भिः अलुब्धैः प्रशस्तं कार्यम्

Whenever there is an issue that does not find a record in the scriptures, a Parishad of 10 scholars who are wise and without greed must decide.

The Bodhayana Dharma Sutra also gives a similar opinion

तदाभावे दशावरा परिषत्

In the absence (of scriptural backing) a Parishad of ten members (must decide the matter)

The works of Yajnavalkya, Manu and Vasishta also confirm the same method in this matter.

These Smritis repeatedly use the word “Shishta” or “noble” for denoting those who are qualified to sit on these Parishads and give judgement. Who qualifies to be known as a “Shishta” is also clarified by the Smritis.

Manu says:

त्रैविद्यो हेतुकस्तर्की नैरुक्तो धर्मपाठकः |
त्रयश्चाश्रमिणः पूर्वे परिषत् स्याद्दशावराः ||

Three persons who know the Vedas, a logician, a Mimamsaka, one who is well versed in Nirukta, one who is an expert on law and three men belonging to the three ashramas shall constitute a Parishad of ten members.

Great emphasis is placed on the condition that those who decide these matters of Dharma must be very learned. Else, the decisions given by them shall not hold ground. Bodhanayana in fact declares that a Brahmana who is not well learned (and yet decides these matters) is useless.

यथा दारुमयो हस्ती यथा चर्ममयो मृगः

(One who is not learned in the scriptures and yet passes judgement) is like an elephant made of wood or like an antelope made of just leather.

The Smritis state that if it is not possible to arrange a gathering of ten scholars, even an assembly of three or four learned people is sufficient. In the worst case, even the words of one vidwan can be accepted, as long as he is extremely qualified in Dharma and the scriptures.

The author of Smritimuktavali says:

अध्यात्मविद्याश्रेष्ठः धर्मज्ञश्च स एको वा यमर्थं धर्मवत्तया ब्रूते सोsपि धर्मः स्यात्

If a person is well grounded in adhyatma and knows the laws of Dharma well, then the words of such a person itself is sufficient in matters of Dharma.

Justice Rama Jois, in the book ‘Legal and Constitutional History of India’ reveals how kings and rulers in ancient Bharata handled such matters.

“However, in view of the above provision, whenever such a situation arose, the king or the court had to ascertain the views of such a Parishad, and a new provision of law could not be declared without such consultation”

It becomes quite clear therefore that the present procedure adopted by our legal systems wherein secular minded legal officers without a firm grounding in Hindu scriptures and Dharma granthas are deciding intricate matters involving our rituals and customs is completely against the core tenets of Sanatana Dharma.

It is therefore time to end this long-standing anomaly and restore the powers of deciding religious matters to Dharma Parishads. An initiative from the government of Bharata to restore the concept of Dharma Parishad, albeit only for the purpose of judging Dharmik matters, would be highly welcome.


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